Religious fanaticism has been cited as a possible motivating factor in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, but fundamentalists who take a literal approach to Scripture are warping theology to justify other needs, said Tamara Albertini, a University of Hawaii associate professor who is writing a book on Islamic philosophy.
"I call it ‘pseudo theology,’" Albertini said. "People who don’t have actual training in theology just pick and choose passages (like), ‘Kill the infidels,’" while disregarding the historical context and ignoring passages from the Quran like those that prohibit killing the innocent.
"That’s the major problem. They find passages to support their cause and don’t read the whole thing," Albertini said.
James D. Frankel, director of Islamic studies in UH’s Religion Department, agreed that religion can be used as an excuse.
"People who have a grievance against society or blame others for their misfortune, they may find an easy target for their disgruntled feelings (and) can blame it on people outside of their faith community, on a country or ethnicity," said Frankel, who also teaches comparative and Chinese religions.
Frankel said the Boston bombing "has to be understood in a larger perspective, a global framework. Something like this is not the equivalent in any way to Sept. 11, 2001. There’s always going to be people, whether Muslim or not, for political or religious reasons or not, who are always going to be targeting innocent victims of society," he said.
"Some people are like fuses waiting to be lit," he said. People can hear the same sermon, and one person can be inspired to do good works and another to take violent revenge, he said. Their individual interpretations depend on their particular background, character and mentality, he said.
Albertini said Islamic followers who haven’t studied the Quran, "especially young people, can easily be turned into killing machines" if they are manipulated by extremists into believing that they can become good Muslims by destroying infidels. And jihadists broaden the definition of "infidels" to include not only non-Muslims, but Muslims who have a different interpretation of theology, she said.
"All it takes is some personal disappointment," she said. Albertini cited news stories that said deceased bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s dream of joining the U.S. Olympic boxing team was dashed in 2010 when he and other noncitizens were barred from qualifying. A article April 27 said the elder Tsarnaev was left adrift, changed his lifestyle and became radicalized in his Muslim faith.
A decision by his younger brother Dzhokhar to allegedly participate in the bomb plot may have been a result of cultural factors more than religious conviction, as loyalty is deeply instilled in Muslim families, Albertini said.
She and Frankel said Muslim fundamentalists have no monopoly on using religious doctrine to justify personal or political agendas. History shows that people of Christian, Jewish and other faiths "have called for and justified some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity," Frankel said.
"I can say with confidence and conviction as a scholar of comparative religions: No religion has a monopoly on peace; no religion has complete immunity from violence and warfare," he said.
It’s up to mainstream Muslims to rescue their religion "from the hands of the extremists," but most "don’t take the trouble to stand against them," Frankel said. "Most people just live their lives, concerned with their families and professions. Unfortunately, ordinary people of Islam are all implicated. That’s why CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and other community leaders and politicians have to come out and say, ‘We denounce this and we separate ourselves from it.’ And that has to happen more and more."
In 2003 Albertini wrote an article, "The Seductiveness of Certainty: The Destruction of Islam’s Intellectual Legacy by the Fundamentalists." From the feedback she received from scholars and others in the Islamic world, they agreed that "the only people who can really get the masses to turn around and listen to good reasoning are the scholars" of theology and jurisprudence. Unlike other places in the world, "theology is also law in Islam," she said.
"The media is always focusing on the bombs and spectacular events, but the battle of ideas is probably more important because that’s where the future gets to be determined," she said.
It’s important in Islam theology, she said, to remember that the "Quran is a text that keeps referring to itself. Later revelations (to Muhammad) override earlier ones, but the Quranic passages are not (printed) there in the order in which they were revealed to the prophet. An ordinary Muslim doesn’t know which verse supersedes the other verse. It takes a lot of training in theology, and there are different schools of thought. In fundamentalism none of that is covered. People just pick and choose."